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Herakles, born of Alkmene, a mortal woman, was the son of Zeus. Hera, the spouse of Zeus, bore ill-will towards Alkmene and her hero-son, and when Herakles was still an infant in the cradle she sent two great serpents to destroy him. But the child took the serpents and strangled them with his own hands. Then, while he was still a youth, a madness sent by the Goddess came upon him, and unwittingly he slew the children of Iphikles, his half-brother. Coming to know what he had done, sleep and rest went from him; he went to Delphoi, the shrine of Apollo, to be purified of his crime.
At Delphoi, at the shrine of Apollo, the priestess purified him, saying, "Thou shalt go to Eurystheus, thy cousin, in Tiryns, and serve him in all things. When the labours he shall lay upon thee are accomplished, and when the rest of thy life is lived out, thou shalt become one of the Immortals." Herakles, on hearing these words, set out for Tiryns.
He stood before his cousin who hated him; he, a towering man,
stood before a king who sat there weak and trembling. Herakles said, "I have come to take up the labours that you will lay upon me; speak now, Eurystheus, and tell me what you would have me do."
Eurystheus, that weak king, looking on the young man who stood as tall and as firm as one of the Immortals, had a heart that was filled with hatred. He lifted up his head and said with a scowl:
"There is a lion in Nemea that is stronger and more fierce than any lion known before. Kill that lion; bring the lion's skin to me that I may know that you have truly performed your task." So Eurystheus said, and Herakles, with neither shield nor arms, went forth from the king's palace to seek and combat the dread lion of Nemea.
He went on until he came into a country where the fences were overthrown, and the fields wasted, and the houses empty and fallen. He went on until he came to a waste around that land: there he came on the trail of the lion; it led up the side of a mountain, and Herakles, without shield or arms, followed on the trail.
He heard the roar of the lion. Looking up he saw the beast standing at the mouth of a cavern, huge and dark against the sunset. Three times the lion roared, and then went within the cavern.
Around the mouth were strewn the bones of creatures it had killed and carried there. Herakles looked upon the bones when he came to the cavern. He went within. Far into the cavern he went; he came to where the lion lay gorged with the prey it had taken. The breath from its mouth and nostrils came heavily to him. The beast yawned.
Herakles sprang on it; he put his great, knotted hands upon its throat. No growl came out of the mouth, but the great eyes blazed and the terrible paws tore at Herakles. Against the rock Herakles held the beast; strongly he held it, choking it through the skin that was almost impenetrable. Terribly the lion struggled; the strong hands of the hero held its throat until it struggled no more.
Then Herakles stripped off the impenetrable skin from the lion's body; he put it upon himself for a cloak. As he went through the forest he pulled up a young oak-tree and trimmed it to make a club for him. self. With the lion's skin over him--that skin that no spear or arrow could pierce--and carrying the club in his hands he journeyed on until he came to the palace of King Eurystheus.
The king, seeing a towering man all covered with the skin of a
monstrous lion coming towards him, ran and hid himself in a great jar. He lifted up the cover to ask the servants what was the meaning of that terrible appearance. His servants told him that this was Herakles come back with the skin of the Nemean lion over him. On hearing this Eurystheus hid himself again. He would not speak with Herakles nor have him come near him, so fearful was he. Herakles was content to be left alone. He sat down in the palace and feasted himself.
The servants came to the king, and when Eurystheus lifted the cover of the jar they told him how Herakles was feasting and devouring all the goods in the palace. The king flew into a rage. Still he was fearful of having the hero stand before him. He issued commands through his heralds ordering Herakles to go forth at once and perform the second of his tasks.
It was the task of slaying the great water-snake that made its lair in the swamps of Lerna. Herakles stayed to feast another day; then, with the lion's skin across his shoulders and the great club in his hands, he started off. But this time he did not go alone; the youth Iolaos, his brother's son, went with him.
Herakles and Iolaos went on until they came to the vast swamp of Lerna. Right in the middle of the swamp was the water-snake, the Hydra. Nine heads it had; it raised them out of the water as the hero and his companion came near. They could not cross the swamp to come to the monster, for a man or a beast would sink in it and be lost.
The Hydra remained in the middle of the swamp belching mud at the hero and his companion. Herakles took up his bow and shot flaming arrows at its head. It became more full of rage; it came through the swamp to attack him. Herakles swung his club. As the Hydra came near he knocked head after head off its body.
But for every head knocked off two grew upon the Hydra. And as he struggled with the monster a huge crab came out of the swamp, and, gripping Herakles by the foot, tried to draw him in. The boy Iolaos came; he killed the crab that had come to the Hydra's aid.
Then Herakles laid hands upon the Hydra; he drew it out of its swamp. He knocked off a head; then he had Iolaos put fire to where the head had been, so that two heads might not grow in that place. The
life of the Hydra was in its middle head; that head he had not been able to knock off with his club. Now, with his hands he tore it off, and he placed the head under a great boulder so that it could not rise into life again. The Hydra's life was now destroyed. Herakles dipped his arrows into the gall of the monster, making his arrows deadly; afterwards, no thing that was struck with these arrows could keep its life.
Again he came to Eurystheus's palace, and Eurystheus, seeing him, ran again and hid himself in the jar. Herakles ordered his servants to tell the king that he had returned and that the second labour was accomplished.
Eurystheus, hearing from the servants that Herakles had spoken mildly to them, came out of the jar. Insolently he spoke. "Twelve labours you have to accomplish for me," he said, "and eleven yet remain to be accomplished."
"How?" said Herakles. "Have I not performed two of the labours? Have I not slain the lion of Nemea and the great water-snake of Lerna?"
"In the killing of the water-snake you were helped by Iolaos," said the king, snapping out his words and looking at Herakles with shifting eyes. "That labour cannot be allowed you."
Herakles would have struck him to the ground. But then he remembered that the crime he had committed in his madness would have to be expiated by labours performed at the order of this man. He looked full upon Eurystheus and he said, "Tell me of the other labours, and I will go forth and accomplish them."
Then Eurystheus bade him go and make clean the stables of King Augeias. Herakles came into the king's country. The smell from the stables was felt for miles around. Countless herds of cattle and goats had been in the stables for years, and because of the uncleanness and the smell that came from the stables the crops were withered all around. Herakles told the king that he would clean the stables if he were given one-tenth of the cattle and the goats for a reward.
The king agreed to give him that reward. Then Herakles drove the cattle and the goats out of the stables; he broke a passage through their foundations and he made channels for the two rivers, Alpheios and Peneios. The waters flowed through the stables, and in a day all
the uncleanness was washed away. Then Herakles turned the rivers back into their own courses.
He was not given the reward he had bargained for, however. He went back and told of his labour accomplished. "Ten labours remain for me to do now," he said.
"Eleven," said Eurystheus. "How can I allow the cleaning of King Augeias's stables to you when you did it for a reward?"
Then, while Herakles stood still holding himself back from striking him, Eurystheus ran away and hid himself. Through his heralds he sent word to Herakles, telling him what his other labours would be.
He was to clear the marshes of Stymphalos of the man-eating birds that gathered there; he was to capture and bring to the king the golden-horned deer of Keryneia; he was also to capture and bring back alive the boar of Erymanthos.
Herakles came to the marshes of Stymphalos. The growth of jungle was so dense that he could not cut his way through to where the man-eating birds were; they sat upon low bushes within the jungle, gorging themselves upon the flesh they had carried there.
For days Herakles tried to hack his way through to them. He could not get to where the birds were. Then, thinking that he might not be able to accomplish this labour, he sat upon the ground in despair.
It was then that one of the Immortals appeared to him; then, for the first and only time, he was given help by one of the Gods. It was Athena who came to him. She stood apart from Herakles; in her hands she held brazen cymbals. These she clashed together. At the sound of the clashing the Stymphalean birds rose up from the low bushes behind the jungle. Herakles shot at them with his unerring arrows. The man-eating birds fell, one after the other, into the marsh.
Then Herakles went north to where the Keryneian deer had her pasture. So swift of foot was she that no hound nor hunter had ever been able to overtake her. For the whole of a year Herakles kept Golden Horns in chase; at last, on the side of Mount Artemision, he caught her. Then Artemis, the Goddess of the Wild Things, would have punished Herakles for capturing the deer. But the hero pleaded with her. She relented and allowed him to bring the deer to Tiryns and show her to King Eurystheus. And Artemis kept charge of Golden Horns while Herakles went off to capture the Erymanthean boar.
He came to the city of Psophis, the inhabitants of which were in deadly fear because of the ravages of the boar. Herakles made his way up the mountain to hunt it. Now, upon this mountain a band of Centaurs lived, and they, knowing Herakles, welcomed him. One of them, Pholos, took Herakles to the great house where the Centaurs stored their wine. Seldom did the Centaurs drink wine; a draught of it made them wild, and so they stored it away, leaving it in the charge of one of their band. Herakles begged Pholos to give him a draught of wine; after he had begged for it again and again the Centaur opened one of his great jars.
Herakles drank wine and spilled it. Then the Centaurs that were without smelled the wine and came hammering at the door, demanding the draughts that would make them wild. Herakles came forth to drive them away. They attacked him. Then he shot at them with his unerring arrows and he drove them away. Up the mountain and away to the far rivers the Centaurs raced, pursued by Herakles with his bow.
One of the band was slain, Pholos, who had entertained the hero. By accident Herakles dropped a poisoned arrow on his foot. Now he took the body of Pholos up to the top of the mountain and he buried the Centaur there. Afterwards, on the snows of Erymanthos, he set a snare for the boar; he caught him there.
Upon his shoulders he carried the boar to Tiryns, and he led the deer there by her golden horns. When Eurystheus had looked upon the boar and upon the deer, the boar was slain and the deer was loosed; she fled back to the Mountain Artemision.
King Eurystheus thought of more terrible labours that he might make Herakles engage in. Now he would send him oversea, and make him strive with fierce tribes there and more terrible monsters. When he had it all thought out he had Herakles brought before him, and he told him of those other labours.
He was to go to savage Thrace and there destroy the man-eating horses of King Diomedes; afterwards he was to go amongst the dread women, the Amazons, daughters of Ares, the God of War, and take from their queen, Hippolyte, the girdle that Ares had given her; then he was to go to Crete and take from the keeping of King Minos the bull that Poseidon had given him; afterwards he was to go to the Island of Erytheia, and take away from Geryoneus, the monster that
had three bodies instead of one, the herd of red cattle that the two-headed hound Orthos kept guard over; then he was to go to the Garden of the Hesperides, and from that garden he was to take the golden apples that Zeus had given Hera for a marriage-gift--where the Garden of the Hesperides was no mortal knew.
So Herakles set out on this long and perilous quest. First he went to Thrace, that savage land that was ruled by Diomedes, son of Ares, the God of War. Herakles broke into the stable where the horses were; he caught three of them by their heads, and although they kicked, and bit, and trampled, he forced them out of the stable and down to the sea-shore; his companion Abderos waited for him there. The screams of the fierce horses were heard by the men of Thrace; they, with their king, came after Herakles. He left the horses in charge of Abderos while he fought the Thracians and their savage king. Herakles shot his deadly arrows amongst them. He drove them from the sea-shore, and he came back to where he had left Abderos with the fierce horses.
They had thrown Abderos upon the ground, and they were trampling upon him. Herakles drew his bow and he shot the horses with his unerring arrows--the arrows that had been dipped in the gall of the Hydra. Screaming, the horses of King Diomedes raced toward the sea; one fell and another fell, and then, as it came to the line of the foam, the third of the fierce horses fell. They were all slain with the unerring arrows.
Then Herakles took up the body of his companion; he was dead. Herakles buried the body with proper rites, and he raised a column over it. Afterwards, around that column a city that bore the name of Herakles's friend was built.
Then toward the Euxine Sea he went. There, where the River Themiskyra flows into the sea, he saw the abodes of the Amazons. And upon the rocks and the steep places he saw the warrior women; they were standing there with drawn bows in their hands. Most dangerous did they seem to Herakles. He did not know how to approach them; he might shoot at them with his unerring arrows, but when his arrows were all shot away, the Amazons, from their steep places, might be able to kill him with the arrows from their bows.
While he stood at a distance, wondering what he might do, a horn was sounded, and an Amazon mounted on a white stallion rode
towards him. "Herakles," she cried out, "The Queen Hippolyte permits you to come amongst the Amazons. Enter her tent and declare to the queen the thing that has brought you amongst the never-conquered Amazons."
Herakles came to the tent of the queen. There stood tall Hippolyte, an iron crown upon her head and a beautiful girdle of bronze and iridescent glass around her waist. Proud as a fierce mountain eagle looked the queen of the Amazons: Herakles did not know in what way he might conquer her. Outside the Amazons stood; they struck their shields with their spears, keeping up a continuous savage din. "For what has Herakles come to the country of the Amazons?" Queen Hippolyte asked.
"For the girdle you wear," Herakles said, and he held his hands ready for the struggle.
"Is it for the girdle given me by Ares, the God of War, that you
I have come, braving the Amazons?"
"For that," Herakles said.
"I would not have you enter into strife with the Amazons," said Queen Hippolyte. And so saying she drew off the girdle of bronze and iridescent glass, and gave it into his hands.
Herakles took the beautiful girdle into his hands. He was fearful that some piece of guile was being played upon him. He took the girdle and put it around his great brows. He thanked the queen, but even as he did the din outside became more savage. Hera, the Goddess who was his foe, had appeared amongst the Amazons as an Amazon. She stirred the warrior-women up against him. They fell upon him with their spears. Then Herakles drew his bow. Hippolyte came out of her tent and mounted her stallion to draw her Amazons away from him. She rode toward the River Themiskyra and they rode with her. And now the arrows of Herakles flew amongst them, and as they fled across the river the white flanks of their stallions were stained with the blood of the Amazons.
He went away from that country with Hippolyte's girdle around his brows. He sailed over the sea and he came to Crete. There he found, grazing in a special pasture, the bull that Poseidon had given king Minos. He laid his hands upon the bull's horns and he overthrew the bull. Then he drove the bull down to the sea-shore.
His next labour was to take away the herd of red cattle that was owned by the monster, Geryoneus. In the Island of Erytheia, in the middle of the Stream of Ocean, lived the monster; his herd was guarded by the two-headed hound Orthos--the hound that was brother to Kerberos, the three-headed hound that kept guard in the Lower. world. As Herakles came near to that island, making Minos's bull swim with him, the sun beat upon him, and drew all his strength away from him; he was dazed and dazzled by the rays of the sun. He drew his bow and shot his arrows upwards. He shouted out against the sun, and in his anger he wanted to strive against the sun. Far, far out of sight the arrows of Herakles went. And the Sun God, Helios, was filled with admiration for Herakles, the man who attempted what was impossible. Then did Helios fling down to Herakles his great golden cup.
Down, and into the Stream of Ocean fell the great golden cup of Helios. It floated there, wide enough to hold all the men who might be in a ship. Herakles put the bull of Minos into the cup of Helios; the cup bore them away, towards the West, and across the Stream of Ocean.
Herakles came to the Island of Erytheia. All over the island straggled the red cattle of Geryoneus, grazing upon the rich pastures. Herakles, leaving the bull of Minos in the cup, went upon the island; he made a club for himself out of a tree, and he went towards the cattle.
The hound Orthos bayed and ran towards him, the two-headed hound sprang upon Herakles with poisonous foam upon his jaws. Herakles swung his club and struck the two heads off the hound. Where the foam of the hound's jaws dropped a poisonous plant sprang up. Herakles took the body of the hound; he swung it around, and he flung it far out into the Ocean.
Then the monster Geryoneus came upon him. Three bodies he had instead of one; he attacked Herakles by hurling great stones at him. Herakles was hurt by the stones. Then the monster beheld the cup of Herakles; he began to hurl stones at the golden thing, striving to sink it in the sea and so leave Herakles without a way of getting from the island. Herakles drew his bow; he shot arrows into the monster, and left him dead in the deep rich grass of the pastures.
He rounded up the red cattle, the bulls and the cows, and he drove
them down to the shore; he put them into the golden cup of Helios where the bull of Minos stayed. Then back across the Stream of Ocean the cup floated. The bull of Crete and the cattle of Erytheia were brought past Sicily and through the straits called the Hellespont. To Thrace, that savage land, they were brought. Then Herakles took the cattle out, and the cup of Helios sank into the sea. Through the wide hinds of Thrace he drove the herd of Geryoneus and the bull of Minos, and he came to Tiryns once more.
There he did not stay. He started off to find the Garden of the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land. Long did he search; he found no one who could tell him where the garden was. At last he came to the Mountain Pelion where the Centaur Cheiron was. And Cheiron told Herakles what journey he would have to make to come to the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land.
Far did Herakles journey; weary he was when he came to where Atlas stood, bearing the sky upon his weary shoulders. As he came near he felt an undreamed-of perfume being wafted towards him. So weary was he with his journey and all his toils that he was fain to sink down and dream in that Evening Land. But he roused himself, and he journeyed on towards where the perfume came from. Over that place a star seemed always arising.
He came to where a silver lattice fenced a garden that was full of the quiet of evening. Golden bees hummed through the air. How wild and laborious was the world he had come from, Herakles thought! He felt that it would be hard for him to return to that world!
He saw three maidens. They stood with wreaths upon their heads and blossoming branches in their hands. When the maidens saw him, they came towards him, crying out, "O man who has come into the Garden of the Hesperides, go not near the tree that the sleepless dragon guards!" Then they went and stood by a tree as if to keep guard over it. All around were trees that bore flowers and fruit, but this tree had golden apples amongst its bright green leaves.
He saw the guardian of the tree. Beside the trunk a dragon lay. As Herakles drew near, the dragon showed its glittering scales and its deadly claws.
The apples were within reach, but the dragon with its deadly claws stood in the way. Herakles shot an arrow; then a tremor went through
the sleepless dragon; it screamed, fell down, and lay stark. The maidens cried in their grief; Herakles went to the tree; he plucked the golden apples and he put them into the pouch he carried. Down on the ground sank the Hesperides, the Daughters of the Evening Land; he heard their laments as he went from the enchanted garden that they guarded.
Back from the ends of the earth came Herakles, back from the place where Atlas stood holding the sky upon his weary shoulders. He went back through Asia and Libya and Egypt, and he came again to Tiryns and to the palace of Eurystheus.
He brought to the king the herd of Geryoneus; he brought to the king the bull of Minos; he brought to the king the girdle of Hippolyte; he brought to the king the golden apples of the Hesperides. And King Eurystheus, with his thin, white face, sat upon his royal throne and looked over all the wonderful things that the hero had brought him. Not pleased was Eurystheus; rather was he angry that one he hated could win such wonderful things.
He took into his hands the golden apples of the Hesperides. But this fruit was not for such as he. An eagle snatched the branch from his hand. The eagle flew and flew until he came to where the Daughters of the Evening Land wept in their garden. There the eagle let fall the branch with the golden apples; the maidens set it back on the tree, and, behold! it grew as it had been growing before Herakles plucked it.
The next day the heralds of Eurystheus came to Herakles and they told him of the last labour that he would have to set out to accomplish--this time he would have to go down into the Underworld and bring up from King Hades's realm Kerberos, the three-headed hound.
Herakles put upon him the impenetrable lion's skin and set forth once more. This might be the last of his life's labours: Kerberos was not an earthly monster, and he who would struggle with Kerberos in the Underworld would have the Gods of the Dead against him.
But Herakles went on. He journeyed to the cavern where there is an entrance to the Underworld. Far into that dismal cavern he went; then he went down, down, down, until he came to that dim river that had beyond it only the people of the dead. Kerberos bayed
at him from the place where the dead cross the river. Knowing that this was no shade, the hound Kerberos sprang at Herakles. He could neither bite nor tear through the impenetrable lion's skin. Herakles held him by the neck of his middle head so that Kerberos was neither able to bite nor tear, nor was he able to bellow.
Then Persephone to the brink of that river came. She declared to Herakles that the Gods of the Dead would not strive against him if he promised to bring Kerberos back to the Underworld.
This Herakles promised. He turned around and he carried Kerberos; his hands were around the monster's neck; from the monster's jaws foam dropped. He carried him on and upward towards the world of men. Out through a cavern that was in the land of Troizen Herakles came, still carrying Kerberos by the neck of his middle head.
From Troizen to Tiryns the hero went; men fled at the sight of the monster he carried. On he went toward the king's palace. Eurystheus was seated outside his palace that day, looking at the great jar he had so often hidden in, and thinking to himself that Herakles would never appear to affright him again. Then Herakles appeared. He called to Eurystheus; he held the Hound of Hell towards him. The three heads grinned at Eurystheus; he gave a cry and scrambled into the jar. But before his feet touched the bottom of it Eurystheus was dead of fear. The jar rolled over, and Herakles looked upon the body that was all twisted with fright. Then he turned around; carrying the hound he made his way back to the Underworld. On the brink of the river he loosed Kerberos, and the bellow of the three-headed hound was heard once more by the River Acheron.